This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 2009 ALL-USA Player of the Year Matt Hobgood of Norco, Calif., who is pitching for the Delmarva Shorebirds, the Baltimore Orioles' South Atlantic League team.
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The low minors were supposed to be a brief tour, a mere way station on a quick trip to the majors for Matt Hobgood. After going 11-1 with a 0.92 earned run average his senior year at Norco, Calif., he was drafted No. 5 overall by the Baltimore Orioles.
Hobgood took a few months off from throwing before reporting to the Orioles' rookie level team in Bluefield, W.Va. Playing long toss, something didn't seem right. His right (throwing) shoulder frequently hurt and the velocity on his fastball wasn't there.
The difference was obvious on the field. In his first four pro seasons, never higher than Class A, his ERA was always 4.00 or higher. He would rehabilitate his rotator cuff in the offseasons, but once the season began, the pain returned while his fastball vanished. His struggles intensified toward the end of the 2011 season. In seven starts at Aberdeen, Md., he went 0-6 with a 10.46 ERA.
VIDEO: Matt Hobgood pitching this season
"I needed surgery," Hobgood said. "That's probably why I was sucking it up."
After struggling in his first two outings last year, he saw Craig Morgan, an orthopedic surgeon in Wilmington, Del., who told him his problem wasn't his rotator cuff, but a loose shoulder capsule that could be repaired with surgery. But that meant a long dose of rehabilitation and the loss of the season.
"I am a very strong believer in Christ and that's what kept me going," Hobgood said. "I had a few people around me who told me that pitchers don't come back from shoulder surgery. That never discouraged me. I am a very determined person."
Hobgood started his rehab work in Sarasota, Fla., in May, a month after the surgery. He continued it in Oklahoma, living with fellow Orioles pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who was the 2011 All-USA Player of the Year, and wrapped up his rehab program in Arizona. It wasn't until this winter, however, that he began to feel like a pitcher again.
"There were times in the shoulder program where my arm felt terrible and the next week it would feel great," Hobgood said. "It was kind of a roller-coaster ride. Right around December, it felt like I had turned a corner."
Playing it safe, the Orioles put Hobgood in the bullpen this season with the Delmarva Shorebirds, keeping his pitch count low.
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In 26.2 innings this season, he has a 1.35 ERA with 22 strikeouts against 10 walks. In his last outing, he went five innings, his longest effort this season, going 4 2/3 innings without giving up a hit or a walk. Better still, his fastball is up to 97 mph, a speed he hasn't seen since high school. Though he would rather be starting, he understands the Orioles' conservative approach.
"You have to come in and throw strikes right away," Hobgood said. "It's a lot of pressure, which I really like. Plus, I'm having fun in the bullpen. We have a real good mix of guys."
Hobgood said he doesn't concern himself with the time he lost.
"I just felt blessed to be able to play again," he said. "I can think of so many pitchers who are hurt and they're either struggling or still working their way back. I'm still coming after people with my fastball and I'm getting the sharpness on my curve back."
He's also tried to mentor others who are recuperating, including Holy Spirit High (Absecon, N.J.) pitcher Gannon White, whom he met in Morgan's waiting room (Gannon had elbow surgery).
"We had surgery around the same time," Hobgood said. "I am just trying to encourage him. There's a lot of doubt that can enter your mind when you've had surgery and are doing rehabilitation. You have to be positive and know the program works."